Ritualsees Erik Lindgren’s Mannen utan väg (The Man Without a Way) a Swedish modernist poem noted for its unconventional imagery and syntax, brought to life in a musical format by the Fire!Orchestra in the shape of five long suites. Originally the simple trio of Mats Gustaffson on sax, Johan Berthling on bass and Andreas Werliin on drums the band have expanded and contracted in numer for each of their four releases. A few seconds into the opening explosion of saxes riffing in unison like a deranged heavy rock group you know that this is a big band like no other. The Fire! Orchestra unleashes challenging, powerful music that is full of unexpected tonal clusters, mad twists and turns, the odd bit of free jazz dissonance that often quickly dissolves into groovy bass lines and rock solid beats mixed with electronica. Somehow, they have managed to learn enough from the challenging big bands of yesteryear to bring the whole project to an entirely new dimension. When considering their influences, Keith Tippett’s Centipede, Don Ellis and even George Russell spring to mind. It’s an irresistible concoction with odd bits of psychedelia, prog and post rock appearing out of the wood work. Even a Fred Frith styled prepared guitar improv gets a look in.
Lining up two drummers, electric piano, guitar, bass, two vocalists, walls of horns, saxophones, trumpets, and other paraphernalia could have been a recipe for acoustic anarchy. But here, the anarchy is contained within a steady selection of stirring repetitive rhythms which owe far more to Krautrock than expected. As the band ploughs on, rhythms become more intense, rising and falling with the music. They often repeat grooves incessantly often in odd time signatures and delivered with this entrancing energy, making this whole album explode with relentless, unbridled power.
Despite following a seemingly unusual trajectory the Fire! Orchestra is a finely chiselled and razor sharp big band with an incredible sense of urgency. The vocal performances by the two lead singers, Sofia Jernberg and Mariam Wallentin, act as the proverbial superglue that makes the performance complete and credible. They employ a wide range of vocal styles and techniques, taking from the heroic free jazz vocal improvisations of Maggie Nichols and Julie Tippetts as much as Bjork and other avant pop luminaries. From wailing, growling and howling to soulful purity and luminous transcendence, their voices are simultaneously scary and appealing. Whilst putting this album on repeat play may be considered a challenge too far, it is nevertheless what I ended up doing time after time. The sheer scale and sonic size of Ritual is a joy to behold and often charged with a sense of endless possibilities.